Everyone remembers the “Fed is Best” campaign where moms talked about what happened to their babies after their attempts to breastfeed. And while many of those stories are not always common, it's important for moms to know whether their babies are hungry or full.
In-between all the stress of giving birth, learning to parent, taking care of yourself, looking after a baby, and trying to master breastfeeding all at once, milk-making can become all-consuming. Everything moms do is somehow tied to baby eating. Need to drink enough water to make enough milk, eat enough calories to provide enough nutrition, sleep enough to be able to feed the baby safely without nodding off, etc.
Then there’s all the terminology and equipment moms have to deal with: pumps, supplements, the right latch, diagrams and so much more. And despite mom’s best efforts, there are times when babies don’t get enough milk.
But rather than constantly stress over it, moms can look out for telltale physical signs that indicate the baby isn’t drinking enough milk. Then, it comes down to consulting the professionals for advice, feeding help, and possibly supplementary feeding tools. Either way, watching for these 20 signs can help ensure your baby gets enough to eat and stays healthy and full.
Just like grown-ups, babies can develop dry cracked lips, too. And just as you might want to search for a lip balm to relieve the dryness, so can babies have the same problem without knowing it. Of course, there can also be other causes for your little one’s dry lips, but often, a lack of hydration is to blame.
According to Healthline, dry lips are an indicator of dehydration, along with a dry tongue and mouth. Babies may also lack tears when crying. Overall, if you’re noticing your little one’s mouth and eyes are dry, those are the first few indicators of dehydration.
Most babies are a little wrinkly immediately after birth. But if your little one’s skin doesn’t plump up in those early days, their dry skin could be a sign that there’s not enough milk getting in. According to the Cleveland Clinic, dry and wrinkled skin is one of the big signs of dehydration in babies.
However, if your baby was late-term and had very little vernix left on him, that could be another reason for the dry and cracked skin. Ultimately, checking for other signs of milk intake is a reasonable next step if you notice your baby has dry skin.
When I had my first son, we struggled with breastfeeding and I felt like he wasn’t eating enough. But during a visit to the emergency room when he was three days old, the ER doc told me that dehydration wasn’t a concern unless the baby’s soft spot --AKA the fontanel or fontanelle-- was sunken in.
While it’s true a sunken soft spot is a sign of malnutrition and dehydration, it’s not one of the first signs. If your baby has a sunken soft spot, that’s a serious sign of a problem and your baby requires immediate medical intervention, Healthline explains.
Another physical sign of inadequate milk intake is the development of under-eye circles. They can have a ton of other causes, too, including allergies, a cold, or a vitamin deficiency, as noted by Livestrong. But dehydration is another condition that can cause dark circles to show up.
A baby’s eyes may also appear sunken if he or she hasn’t had enough to eat for a matter of a few days or more. Think of photos of suffering children in third-world countries that don’t get enough to eat- their eyes often look dark and sunken, too. Fortunately, increasing the baby’s food intake can keep other issues from developing.
Jaundice is a condition my family is familiar with since both of my sons have had it at birth. While your doctor or another practitioner may assign your baby a number that corresponds with how severe the jaundice is, the condition can change fairly quickly.
Babies with lower numbers don’t often require intervention. Babies with higher numbers might need to undergo phototherapy to get the bilirubin out of their bodies faster. But every jaundiced baby needs to keep eating so his body can adequately process and “flush out” the bilirubin, Today’s Parent explains. Without enough milk, the baby may begin to look more and more yellow and develop other troubling symptoms like lethargy, too.
One of the ways babies with jaundice process the bilirubin in their bodies is through urinating. In general, however, peeing often and enough is one of the top signs of a healthy and well-fed baby. Regardless of whether she has jaundice or not, your baby should be urinating often --at least six wet diapers per day for infants-- once mom’s milk comes in, Cleveland Clinic suggests.
While a newborn will likely have quite a few wet diapers in the beginning because they’re flushing out amniotic fluid that they swallowed in utero, keep an eye on their output in the days following birth, too. As the baby gets more milk from mom, more wet diapers should come.
Most healthy babies will have their first dirty diaper within at least 24 hours after birth. However, that first poo, or meconium, is left over from baby’s time inside the womb. Babies should start going on their own thanks to their milk intake in the outside world within a day or two.
Well-fed babies should be producing three to four stools per day by day four, Kellymom explains. Breastfed babies have nearly odorless diapers that look seedy or runny. They should also be the size of a quarter or larger- so don’t expect massive diaper blowouts at first, just consistency in how often the baby goes.
Some moms are lucky with their milk production and always produce more than baby can drink. But in most cases, if a baby is nursing directly from the breast, mom shouldn’t be able to get a whole lot of milk out afterward. If there’s a full “serving” of milk left, via pumping or hand expression, immediately after baby nurses, he’s probably not getting much milk from the tap.
Still, moms may notice an increase in output that gives them some extra for storing, but it’s important that the baby has his fill first. A ton of leftover milk may be a sign that your little one isn’t nursing effectively and therefore isn’t drinking enough milk.
If there’s no milk to be had at the breast, most babies will protest. Some might become angry and cry more when offered an empty breast, while others might be lazy about how they approach the lack of milk. If your baby isn’t latching on enthusiastically, there might be a supply issue behind it.
Your baby may also have trouble latching, especially after going without enough milk for a while. At that point, she may no longer have the energy to try and get milk from the tap, especially if there’s not much to begin with. Although a lazy latch can be a sign that baby isn’t getting enough milk, there are a ton of other explanations, too, but it’s worth looking into regardless.
Although it’s normal for newborns to lose up to seven percent of their birth weight, Kellymom explains, they should begin gaining weight back after mom’s milk comes in. The average breastfed baby gains six ounces per week, starting when mom’s milk comes in between day two to five.
Before that, small amounts of colostrum deliver concentrated nutrition to babies, but it’s not enough to get them to pack on the ounces. If your baby hasn’t gained any weight back by the end of the first week or beginning of the second week after birth, you should talk to your doctor or lactation consultant, Kellymom cautions.
Although they’re not as noticeable as a grownup’s hunger pangs, little babies can have rumbly tummies too. If you feed your baby regularly at the breast but still hear rumblings in their tummy, they might still be hungry. Since it’s hard to determine how much milk a breastfed baby is eating without weighing them before and after a feeding, it’s difficult to know if they’re getting enough.
There’s also the fact that some babies just have noisy tummies that make a lot of noise while digesting their meals. If you notice your baby has a rumbly stomach along with other physical signs of hunger, they may not be getting enough to eat.
Babies sleep a lot. Newborns, in particular, tend to sleep more hours than they stay awake. But they should be waking to eat between eight and 12 times per 24-hour period, Kellymom specifies.
If your baby is sleeping longer than a two to four-hour stretch at a time, he may not be consuming enough milk. While most professionals don’t recommend waking a sleeping baby, making sure an infant gets enough nutrition in the early days is crucial. Kellymom recommends waking excessively sleepy newborns after a two-hour nap during the day and letting them go no longer than four hours at night without a meal.
Another physical sign that requires mom’s senses is baby’s swallowing habits. As lactation consultants like to tell nursing moms, getting a good latch isn’t the only way to ensure that baby is actually eating. While non-nutritive nursing, in the beginning, helps produce milk, by the time your milk comes in, you should hear your baby swallow at every nursing session.
Seeing baby gulp down milk involves a little bulge in their cheek as the milk travels, but you can also hear their little slurping sounds. Of course, milk coming out the sides of her mouth is another sign that baby is, in fact, getting milk from the breast. If you don’t hear swallowing, baby might need some help to fill up.
I remember this tip from a lactation consultant I saw with my second son. She told me that babies who are hungry are often tense. They’ll have closed fists and be sort of “balled up.”
But once the milk starts flowing, even the “hangriest” baby will loosen up. Once he gets his fill of milk, the baby should relax and open his hands. Clenched fists are a sign of hunger and also distress, so babies shouldn’t perpetually look like they’re ready to punch us. Although on its own, this tip isn’t the be-all end-all of hunger signs, it’s a reasonable explanation for how to tell when your breastfed baby is full.
Although some babies get so hungry that they fall into lethargic behavior, other babies stay mad! If your infant is nursing or drinking a bottle and remains tense after feeding, they are likely still hungry. Like the previous sign of clenched fists as an indicator of hunger, a baby who doesn’t “loosen up” might still want more to eat.
And as babies get older, they are less likely to be in a good mood or want to play if their tummy is still rumbling. Over time, you’ll notice that your baby shows signs of being happiest and most relaxed after a good feed.
When you leave the hospital or birthing center with a newborn, one of the first tips your nurse or lactation consultation gives is to watch for signs of hunger in your baby. Although crying is one of those signs that is hard to ignore, more subtle signs come first. This way, you can pick up on baby’s cues and deliver the food before she completely freaks out.
If she gets worked up before you offer food, you’ll have to get her to calm down before she’ll latch on and relax. So an early sign of hunger is baby “rooting” around- turning her head side to side and trying to latch on whatever she finds there. Consistent rooting might mean your baby still wants more milk.
Another early warning sign that baby is either becoming or is still hungry is “mouthing.” In newborns, you might notice that they bring their hands to their mouths and slurp on them. Twins may try to gnaw on one another when they get hungry. Essentially, whatever is near baby’s mouth, he’ll start trying to get milk from.
This mouthing continues when babies get older, and it can also be a sign of teething in later months. But early on, mouthing is a sign that baby wants milk, so if he continuously mouths on things, he may not be satisfied with the amount of milk he’s currently getting.
I remember a lactation consultant telling me early on that the best way to get a breastfed baby to drink from a bottle is to have dad handle the feeding. While helpful for moms who need to pause breastfeeding while baby is in dad or someone else’s care, this tip also applies to moms whose babies aren’t eating enough.
If your baby can smell milk on you but is still hungry, she may not be able to calm down with you. If you notice that she’s upset after nursing but will only relax once dad takes over, it could be that the smell of milk is stressing her out. Upping feeds may help avoid this pattern- though dad can still help after mealtimes!
Although moms don’t produce much milk in the first few hours after the baby’s birth, there should be at least a few drops coming out every feed or pumping session. Many moms don’t have access to a breast pump in the first few days, however, as I didn’t while I was in the hospital with my first.
That’s because many lactation consultants prefer for baby to do the work in the beginning, rather than mom relying on a pump. But for me, that was a mistake. I never made enough milk for my baby, and the fact that none came out when I hand-expressed proved that there was barely any to begin with. Plenty of moms don’t respond to a pump, but you should be able to express at least a few drops of milk manually. Otherwise, there may not be any in there for baby to eat.
We’ve already mentioned that newborns sleep a lot, but too much sleep isn’t good for anyone. Even if your baby is in the middle of a good nap, you may want to wake her for a feed if it’s been more than two to four hours since the last mealtime. Babies who are hungry will often go into sleep mode to conserve energy.
After all, it takes fewer calories to sleep than it does to scream for food. If your baby cries or seems otherwise distressed but then falls asleep, over and over, that could be a serious physical sign of ongoing hunger.
References: Healthline, Cleveland Clinic, Livestrong, Today’s Parent, Kellymom